Pizza Quest

Lamenting about the cost of living in Lower Manhattan has become as futile as asking “Why isn’t fried chicken good for me?”  It is a simple, tragic, reality.  I am not here to lament.   Instead I’m here to voice my profound appreciation for one of the few, affordable, rays of light in the sprawl below 14th street: the dollar slice.  

During my vagabond months of last year, much of which spent in an apartment on Avenue D (a street that appears to have never received the memo about gentrification in Alphabet City) the dollar slice was a gastronomique oasis, an economic and culinary vestigial remnant of cheaper days gone by that keeps us afloat.  

 

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not my bicycle, but a kindred soul nonetheless 

 

 

Those of you who have read my writings are familiar with the Manga Scale.  It was with this ideal that I set off for the perfect dollar slice, a journey that would take me throughout south east manhattan, in search of the most exquisite marinara covered manna. Oh streets of New York, what perfection could you hold?  Acompanarme.  

All of these places are essentially called the same thing so I’ve listed their cross streets for the sake of simplicity.  I’ve not included the financial district because if you are hanging out in the financial district you probably can afford a decent meal.  The west village and washington square are not included because I don’t enjoy hearing about NYU freshman seminar essay topics while I consider what my life has become, which is what I think about when I’m eating dollar pizza.  Two Bros is not included because everyone knows them and I find their slices too sweet/capitalistic.  

 

Rivington and Essex:  

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A locale of decent quality and taste.  Located extremely close to my favorite watering hole (Welcome to the Johnson’s) this dollar slice purveyor is a treat whether preparing my stomach to drink fifteen budweisers and play pool against a group of aggressive yet untalented aging punk dudes, or stumbling out of the bar at close.  Adding to its allure is that the owner is supposedly a champion pizza twirler, and Turkish.  This is truly the American dream.  However, while one may be a great twirler of Bosphorian origins, I care significantly more about the taste of the actual pizza versus how high you can throw it into the air.  There are also a bunch of pictures of the owner side by side with celebrities of various caliber, ranging from the extremely creepy Akon to a visibly inebriated Keanu Reeves.  

The pizza itself is very decent: salty, a thick bed of dough, good consistency to the cheese.  This dollar slice loses points for two major reasons: The first is the lack of parmesan cheese.  True dollar slice connoisseurs know that the slice itself is more of a vehicle for the free toppings that will substantially add to the taste and value of the product.  What is at first simply bread, tomato sauce, and cheese, is transformed into a limited yet delicious spectrum of herbs, spices, and powdered salts.  Parmesan is a key amongst these.  Essex and Rivington’s lack of parmesan cheese serves to make them come off as cheap, and unsympathetic to the palates of the worker.  Bread and Roses, my friends.  The second cause for concern is the raise in price after 10pm to two dollars a slice.  The reasoning make sense. Drunk assholes will pay more for a slice of pizza at a later hour while leaving a public house of amusement and libations.  But once again, this airs more of exploitativeness than enterprise.

Despite all of these anti-lumpen proletarian measures, the dollar slice on Essex and Rivington is a very good place to eat cheap pizza and potentially see a fight start. The LES’s rocker past has very much transformed into bridge and tunnel dudes on the weekend who didn’t get enough hugs as a child.  Somehow, pizza and fluorescent lights only exacerbates their chauvinistic impulses.

 

Allen and Hester:

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Delve deep into the world of Chinatown/LES my comrades!  If you are in these parts the logic would be to patronize a superior proprietor of cheap eats such as Prosperity Dumpling (RIP).  However, to fully complete a Marco Polo-esque afternoon adventure of taste and cost, occasionally a good slice of pizza is what the tongue longs for (the mixture of Italian and Chinese cuisines is often overlooked.  It’s not that they mix well, it’s just that they are both cost effective).  

Given the re-appearance of drunk Keanu Reeves (this time in black and white!) at this location, I’m assuming Allen and Hester is owned by the same pizza tosser as Essex and Rivington.  This dollar slice scores major points for the fact that it has seating.  Just because we are poor and enjoy a thrifty meal does not mean we don’t deserve to rest our weary legs which tire from long days of sitting around writing emails in the offices where we are essentially glorified secretaries.  Ah, to be young and employed in New York!  What wonders our degrees in Caribbean literature have brought us!  In truth, the clientele of this location does thoroughly make one question what direction their life is heading in.  I’m not sure which opiate the patrons of Allen and Hester dollar slice prefer, but it is certainly one which has made them both aggressive and strangely joviale.  If you are okay with lots of neck tattoos, thoroughly worn down walking shoes, nonsensical mumbling, and the occasional drool, this is your kinda place.  In all seriousness, they are a nice bunch.  Share the hot flakes with them and you’ll be fast friends.  

The pizza here is made fresh often, and thus one endures the harrowing journey of wanting to eat the pizza right away while risking scalding your mouth instantly.  I imagine this is what Sade was talking about in “The Sweetest Taboo”.  “You’ve got the hottest slice, sometimes I think you’re just too glutennnyyyy…..”  The problem lies in that I prefer my dollar slices reheated.  This allows the cheese to congeal and become more substantive, with its hidden notes emerging.  The pizza here is a little too thin for my liking, requiring the purchase of more slices to feel sustenance.

However, once again, these are dollar slices, and you have to really fuck it up to make it not tasty/worth it.  So this is a perfectly good place to have a cheap lunch/breakfast while wandering around Allen street searching for your drug dealers car, or to hear about the latest methadone clinic gossip.  

 

Ave A and 2nd St:   

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Avenue A holds many delicious locales to dine.  Black Market’s cheeseburger is a revelation and GG’s has the most reasonably priced restaurant Tecate’s around.  These places are all well and good, but after blowing all my money at the bar it’s the corner of 2nd St and A that I find myself ordering slices in the hopes that it will miraculously pre-treat what will inevitably be a debilitating hangover.  

This location lacks seating, and it is incredibly small.  If more than two people are enjoying their slices inside it makes for some unwanted bumping and grinding.  What the store lacks in space it certainly makes up for in service.  Slices are served speedily and at a decent temperature, ready to eat instantly.  Further, the staff always calls me “Boss”.  This makes me feel weird given both them and I are partners in the great proletarian workers struggle, but I appreciate the sentiment.

Importantly, they have the full gamut of free toppings. Oregano, Pepper, Garlic Salt, Parmesan Cheese, Hot Flakes, AND Hot Sauce.  My my, what decadence.  The slices themselves are not extraordinary but are thick enough and leave you feeling un-famished after two slices, and for just 75 cents more you get you a can of soda.  The store is also a nice place to stop by and get out of the cold during the day.  They serve coffee as well but it looks horrible.  

 

Orchard and Delancey (AKA Pizza):

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I make note of the name of this location because I find it fascinating.  Is it called “99 Cent Pizza AKA Fresh Pizza”?  Is it just called “AKA Pizza”?  What else are people calling it?  Deep philosophical questions are contemplated at this restaurant.  “Is this Pizza?  Who am, I?”  I personally found myself being drawn towards nihilism by the end of my portion here, for what point is life, if I have found such a delicious slice?  Why go on?  Alec Baldwin was probably eating here when he decided to quit public life.  

There are a lot of great things going on at AKA Pizza:  A hand painted Fresco graffiti mural about the lower east side’s love for pizza, a clear homage to Diego Rivera’s work for the Ford Motor Company.  A deal on 14” pizza’s for five dollars on Mondays and Tuesdays.  Parmesan cheese, SEATING!  The only thing holding AKA Pizza from Manga Scale perfection is that their staff is sub par.  The young man behind the counter seemed less than interested in my request that my slice be made warm and not too hot, for he was on his phone throughout my order.  I understand that working at this pizza place may not be all that stimulating or rewarding, and a zen like stewardship of the oven is not required, however I would like to be at least acknowledged.  As we have discussed, New York is already treating me quite poorly with cost of living.  The dollar slice restaurant is supposed to be a place of refuge and solidarity, where I am not judged for my economic standing and love of low priced pies.

Despite the rough start this was a great slice.  Re-heated, bountiful, with ample amounts of cheese and dare I say the perfect amount of sauce.  The oregano here was also especially flavorful.  I was thoroughly delighted, and by the end of my second slice had forgiven the employee in my mind.  Pizza heals all wounds.  

(Note: Many moons after writing this piece, my bike was stolen from outside this dollar slice.  The house always wins in New York, for no great thing comes without a steep moral/economic/transportative cost.)

 

Avenue C and 9th:  

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Avenue C is a strange place.  It represents a sort of DMZ between the thoroughly gentrified Avenues A and B, which at this point are essentially part of the East Village, and the still somewhat “complex” Avenue D.  There are places such as Ninth Street Espresso and whatever that store is that sells 8 dollar grilled cheeses, and then there are places like AC Kitchen and the dollar slice that serve a less affluent clientele.  

The location of this restaurant is quite large, yet does not have seating.  There is ample space however to post up at a windowed counter and enjoy your cheese bread while seeing the eclectic mix of residents circulating outside, a neighborhood in flux.  The pizza is good and they have the full array of free toppings.  It’s nothing to get overly excited about, but a solid slice.  It’s like seeing Rocky IV on TV: you don’t cancel plans to watch it, but it’ll fill the time before your tinder match messages you back.  The staff here are incredibly nice as well.  Two years ago I was broke and living around these parts.  I ate two one-dollar slices twice a day and walked everywhere because I didn’t have money for subway rides (sorry I can’t meet you in Brooklyn!).  I lost five pounds and looked great.  This proves both that carbs aren’t caligula incarnate and pizza is delicious and takes a while to get sick of.  I’d say I’ve moved on but the inspiration for writing this piece is that I’m pretty much in the same position as back then.  I imagine that there is a sect of monks in Tuscany who practice a similar form of asceticism.  Hot flakes are a great inducer of self discovery, as is not being able to afford going out to eat with anyone.   

 

Everyone likes pizza.  It unites us in a way only rivaled by hate for Rudy Giuliani and/or whoever schedules MTA maintenance  By no means is the goal of this piece to disparage fantastic restaurants such as Two Boots, Motarino, and their ilk who are the producers of delectable slices with a cacophony of interesting toppings.  It is simply that the dollar slice is an institution, an idea.  A concept so simple, yet containing substantial depth and variance, often not even involving the pizza at all.  An ephemeral “experience” of austerity and joy.  

Derelict Dining: Papaya Quest

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(Originally posted on the “A New York Thing” Glob.  R.I.P.)

New York is a city of wonder and opportunity, a rising monument to the dream of our great nation.  To see it emerge in the distance elicits a shiver at the gleam, the mystery of what is contained in the alleys and avenues deep below the spires of an empire.  But it is also a city of divisions.  A short bridge ride brings one from the luxury of Columbus Circle into the hallowed grounds of Queensbridge.  Divided by a river and three socio-economic classes, the neighborhoods exist in stark contrast.

Even with rampant social stratification and disenfranchisement, there are still great equalizers, shared elements deeply embedded into the DNA of the metropolis. The hot dog sits peak atop these unifiers.  Rich or poor, Jewish or Muslim, Black or Dominican, all enjoy this gastronomique guilty pleasure.  Venture with me, lost soul, idealistic dreamer, white-collar criminal, into the world of papaya juice and hot dogs.  
1Papaya Dog:

Sometimes, in the darkest moments of my life, I choose to push myself further into the abyss.  You see, it is complete darkness, black, that is the absorption of all light.  So when I am forced to take the L train back to Kings County at 4am next to many a collared shirt-wearing merrymaker, I choose to compound the darkness in my suffering by stepping into Papaya Dog on the corner of 1st Avenue and 14th Street.  

Beyond being geographically accommodating, placed directly on the demarcation line of downtown, Papaya Dog is the most economically gracious of the Papaya Dog purveyors.  For a mere 4 dollars you are treated to 2 hot dogs and a fruit juice.  The hot dogs at Papaya Dog are good, filling and salty – all that you would want in a dog, really.  Yet, they lack a certain snap to them.  The Papaya juice is passable, but you can most certainly tell it is made from a powder.  The beverage was pleasing but also caused some sort of existential/real crisis for aNYthing’s own Torey Kish, launching him into a haze for the following half hour.  It is the decor of Papaya Dog that makes it so bleak. Standing up and eating at the windowed counter, under the bright fluorescents, one watches the world go by. Young professionals commuting home/drunk, a street book seller vending, MTA buses (that I am too scared to get on because they lack the rails of direction that ease my mind on the subway) passing by.  I eat here once every month and a half.  

Note: All of the employees at Papaya Dog are from Assiut, Egypt, where in the year 2000 the Virgin Mary appeared. They are very nice.  

Taste: Mangas

Cost: Mangas

Ease of Use: 3.5/5 Mangas

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Papaya King:

In the 1930’s, Gus Poulos founded Papaya King with the raison d’etre of providing cheap and healthy beverages to the masses.  It was a noble cause and no one batted an eyelash when these health drinks were paired with hot dogs, which no matter how delicious, are very close to the height of un-health.  Mind you, at the time you could still smoke everywhere and probably get a doctor to give you cocaine.  Papaya King was the original Juice Press, which I hope in 50 years is understood as similarly unhealthy (you won’t get diabetes but wheatgrass probably makes you prone to shingles, or something of a similar ilk).  

If you were unaware that “Papaya King” was the original proprietor of papaya juice and dogs before entering the store, which does have a dazzling neon-sign, you will when you are bombarded by thousands of “Papaya King Facts” placarded all around the shop. For example: “Papaya promotes heart health and male fertility” – debateable.  “Lenny Bruce lived on this street, and married a stripper!” That’s a cute story but so did Wiz Khalifa and I’ve already seen everyone I know naked on “the Internet”.  

The current iteration of Papaya King is very much attempting to channel the ethos of the original juice-hot dog combo.  Yet, their pursuit of capitalist grandeur and fame have diverted them from their cause.  It is 7 dollars for two hot dogs and a juice.  There is the option of multiple “toppings”, but that is putting lipstick on a pig in every sense, even if these are kosher dogs.  With this said, the hot dogs at Papaya King are quite good.  They aren’t 3 dollars better than competitors, but the skin does have an excellent snap to it.  Even so, the papaya juice was too sugary.  Further, for this price, I might as well go to Crif Dog down the street and watch people wait for hours to get into a bar that they think is cool because you go through a phone booth to get in.  Here’s a neat trick for you entrepreneurs out there: just put a pay phone next to the door of your bar and don’t let anyone in, people will pay anything to sit there.

Taste: Mangas

Cost: 1.5/5 Mangas

Ease of Use: 2.5/5 Mangas

Gray’s Papaya:

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The Gray’s Papaya on the corner of Sixth Ave and 8th St has closed, and true to my theory, is being replaced by a “Liquiteria” gourmet juice shop (fact check).  This is a tragedy, as the Village Voice once called Gray’s Papaya “The Finest Culinary Addition to Downtown” – a true Jacobin in the bourgeois brunch fiefdom of the West Village.  On the night of our hot dog evaluation  there was no time for mourning this loss.  Torey and I ventured uptown to 72nd st, Gray’s Papaya’s last location.  

“When you’re hungry, or broke, or just in a hurry!” says the sign greeting you after seventy blocks of bicycle riding.  Gray’s was founded in the 70s by Paul Gray, originally a partner in Papaya King.  This breakaway colony has maintained a much more authentic feel than its originator.  Prices have gone up, but 5 dollars for two dogs and a juice in their “Recession Special” remains a deal.  The papaya juice itself is perfect, refreshing, with a delicious milkiness and no horrible after-taste to it.  The dogs are delectable and snappy; I easily finished two of them and did not feel outwardly horrible about myself for eating five hot dogs in one hour.  They blend the notes of intense salt synonymous with a superior dog with a subtle sweetness of the buns.  The quotation placards at Gray’s are far less facetious and money grubby in their feel than at Papaya King.  “Gray’s Papaya grills a meaty beef hot dog that is a steal” – Mimi Sheraton, who according to google image search DOES NOT LOOK LIKE SOMEONE WHO ENJOYS HOT DOGS.  “Famous Hot Doggery” – Anonymous, because when we are talking great hot dogs, who needs to cite sources?  “Can slam dunk a basketball, definitely not allergic to horses.” – Anonymous, discussing Gabriel Luis Manga.   

Gray’s Papaya is the pinnacle of papaya juice-hot dog storefronts.  They combine taste, cost, and even though they are all the way uptown, the fact that they are located in Jerry Seinfeld/Kramer’s fictional neighborhood bumps them up by two ease of use points.  

Taste: Mangas

Cost: 4/5 Mangas

Ease of Use: Mangas.  

Just remember: no one looks good eating a hot dog, no one looks bad eating a hot dog.